Thesis: Walter Wink and Systems Theory

Rick had a great question on my last post:

I was actually wondering if in what sense (if any) can the powers (in Wink’s perspective) be conceived as having a distinct orientation or impulse than the the specific orientation or impulse of individual persons? Is there any room for somewhat distinct wills? Is the will of the power/s ever more than the will of the individuals which might make up whatever group is living by the power/s?

It’s an excellent question, and gets to the heart of Wink’s theory of the Powers.  Patrick Franklin (my thesis advisor), without knowing Wink’s theory, made a connection to what I was talking about and Systems Theory, and it fits perfectly, so I’ll use it here.  He was studying systems theory because of its implications for theological anthropology and the question of what makes a person, and I think it’s related but on a different level.

A systems theory scholar can correct me (please do!), but the description that Dr. Franklin gave me involved computers.  Computers are made up of many small components that, when working together, create something that is bigger than themselves – the many parts sending simple electrical signals can, together, make a video game come to life, for example.  We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, right?  But the interesting thing is when there is a feedback loop, and the whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but the whole actual begins to control its component parts.  A computer’s many small pieces with their simple electrical signals together can create a virtual thing that, once it has been created by the many parts working together, can now control those parts to make new virtual things, even creating chains of feedback loops.  So while the higher-level processes are dependent on the lower-level processes for their very existence, in a sense the lower-level processes are also dependent on the higher-level processes that are now directing the lower-level processes.  In short, the computer takes on a life of its own, so to speak.  Is a computer a living thing?  No.  But it is not just a physical thing, either – it is also a virtual thing.
In the same way, a social institution is greater than its members.  Walter Wink uses the example of a sports game.  Thousands of perfectly lovely, kind, even Christian, people get together for a communal event: a world-class soccer match.  Something happens at that soccer match, and by the end of it those wonderful and gentle people sometimes end up doing things that they never dreamed they could do: riots, senseless violence, destruction of property, etc.  Sports, competition, these are things ingrained in human nature, given by God to bring us together – and they do so, most of the time.  But like everything else in this world, social institutions that were created to bring us together can be fallen, and tear us apart.  Sometimes, wonderful people get together and have a wonderful time; other times, a spiritual force takes over – a large-scale, impersonal possession, if you will – and all hell breaks loose (pun intended).  I think that we can account for the different outcomes (a great game, or a riot) by noting that we, as individuals, contribute to the spirit (the virtual computer) that also influences us; so if a lot of people go to the game looking for a fight, the spirit of the game takes a very different tone than it would have if everyone went there looking for a laid-back Sunday afternoon.  Sure, there are still a lot of people who are looking for a laid-back Sunday afternoon, but from the moment they arrive at the park there’s something different in the air, and some of the people who wanted a laid-back game find themselves itching for a fight by the end of the game too.

I have trouble with this particular analogy, because it not only suggests that such a spirit is not personal (Wink himself fell on the impersonal side, but he claimed it didn’t matter in regard to his theory of social institutions being spiritual in nature), but that it is not permanent.  This is not necessarily the case, though: perhaps the spirit of sport is always there, but only manifests itself at certain times and places, i.e. at the game?  And if the spirit is permanent but only occasionally manifests itself, then it could very well be personal.  What is important is that, though it has great power and influence over all of us individually, it is only collectively that we can have any significant impact on it.  Once it is created, the virtual computer controls the physical components, not the other way around.  It would take all of the physical components rebelling together to shut it down.  At the same time, we can collectively influence the powers for the worse, too: a spirit becomes violent and harmful not because of its own choices (though that may be a part of it: like Wink, I don’t rule it out!) but because we, collectively, bring sin into the equation.

Let’s take another example: politics.  Since Rick is American, I’ll use American politics 🙂

The President of the United States of America is supposed to be the most powerful person in the world, right?  But anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that the President is very limited in their decision-making powers.  Some of these limitations are by design: there are checks and balances in the political system to make sure that no despot can ever rule in the US, and that’s a darn good thing.  Most of the true limitations, however, are not by human design, but are imposed by the powers behind the President.  The Office of the President is greater than any particular person who sits in it, made up of the collective influences, decisions, and legacies of every president who’s come before, but greater than the sum of its parts.  History, precedent, and the collective desires of the people all have incredible impact on what any given president can truly do, even within their legal bounds.  A great politician should be someone who can lead the people, making decisions that make us collectively better, and inspiring the best in us personally; instead, a great politician tends to be someone who can ride all of the factors that influence their decisions, doing exactly what is needed to keep their position.  We can’t fault them for that because we know that if they break any of these unwritten rules, they’ll lose whatever influence they actually still do have over the system.  They’re a bigger component than most, but they’re still just one of the many, and it’s the virtual machine that’s calling the shots.  That’s why Obama is just barely different than Bush, and why he’s not going to change that much even if he beats Romney: because the true power of the Throne is in the Throne itself, not in the person who sits on it.

Now, up to this point I’ve stressed the power relations rather than the personality.  As I mentioned, Wink was inclined to think that these social institutions are spiritual forces, but not personal ones – but he claimed that it could be either way.  If the connection with Systems Theory is correct (this connection didn’t come from Wink, it’s something Dr. Franklin and I put together) then we do have influence over the powers, which are in a sense generated or given power by us.  That might suggest to some that the powers are not personal, that they are (like the computer) an impersonal force born out of the combined spirits of people.  But the influence of these powers on us as individuals does not take away our own personality, even when it takes away our individuality (when we, like everyone around us, start breaking windows because the Canucks lost).  We are personal, spiritual beings who are influenced by other spiritual beings, personal or not.

So, being influenced by humans doesn’t mean that the powers aren’t personal; we may have good reason to believe that they are.  When we think of “personal” we think of “having their own characteristics and will,” and they certainly do have their own characteristics: this is just as true of the computer in systems theory as it is of the powers and principalities.  The virtual machine that controls the physical machine is not like any of the physical parts, and further is not like the combination of all of its parts; so too, the powers and principalities are not like any of their physical representatives – they have their own logic, their own goals, and even their own style or MO.  I think that the reason that we have difficulty thinking of a social institution as a personal spirit is because we associate persons with physical embodiment, and social institutions are embodied in a collective way rather than an individual way; perhaps this is why Wink preferred to think of them as impersonal, even though he spoke of them as having their own will.

What’s fascinating is that our sin can have a major effect on how a spirit manifests.  In the computer analogy, we are the individual components who collectively create the virtual machine that in turn directs our movements; we aren’t functioning the way our creator intended, and so the virtual machine that is created as the result of our collective actions is as fallen as our collective actions are.  Where this analogy breaks down is that the virtual machine, or rather, the spiritual force was created from the beginning as a good thing; it’s not we who created it (though I thought this for a long time about Wink’s theory, and it still intrigues me: can we create a spiritual being by creating a new institution?), but it’s still we who corrupted it through our collective sinfulness.  Theologians, identifying the serpent in the garden with Satan, later wrote stories which place the fall of Satan before the fall of human beings – effectively placing the blame on spiritual beings for the fall of human beings.  If Wink’s theory is correct, and if the analogy between Wink’s theory of social institutions and systems theory is correct, then human sin is just as responsible for the fall of spiritual beings.  Sin is now a chicken-and-egg situation, and we’re all to blame just as much as Satan is.  The only difference is that Satan is in a privileged position of power: we can only influence the powers when we act collectively, while any given power has influence over all of us at once.  In this sense they are more responsible because they have more responsibility, not because their actions are any worse, or because their actions came first (which they may not have).

The thing about the powers, even though they are personal, is that we can’t reason with them.  Christ has already exposed them, and they know that their time is short.  What we CAN do is use our collective influence, because every Jesusy act sends out tiny ripples that, collectively, rock the powers’ boat.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s